4 Ways to Develop Humility in Leadership

Here are four leadership practices I’ve found helpful in developing humility. Many of them deal with leadership situations with significant differences or conflicts. They do not come easy to me, as I suspect they will not for most leaders. Humility takes intentionality and effort on our part. 

  1. Exhibit genuine curiosity about others and their differences. 

Because humility is rooted in concern for the other, cultivating humility begins with trying to understand those who are different from us. I naturally gravitate toward those who are like me. But in leadership, we are called to lead a team of people, many of whom differ from us, sometimes in profound ways. 

A sign of healthy leadership is the ability to nurture a diverse group in perspectives and gifts. That isn’t easy to do without a healthy curiosity about those different from us and a willingness to appreciate what those differences contribute to the team. 

I started a company with a good friend. He and I had known each other for many years. We shared many interests, including a passion for forming an entrepreneurial venture. In many ways, I thought we were alike. 

But once we went into business together, I discovered we were pretty different in how we approached our business relationships. I valued consensus and agreement. He, on the other hand, loved to be a contrarian. He took the opposite position on almost anything that mattered, whatever my view was. Mind you, he did it in a friendly way. But he rarely let my discomfort stand in the way of a good argument. I have to admit that sometimes I found it tiring, if not downright frustrating. 

But I quickly learned that this was not just a matter of him wanting to be right. Or that he simply enjoyed a good debate. Instead, he wanted to make sure we had critically thought through essential issues. Because he didn’t let me off the hook, his contrarian approach made sure we worked through the critical aspects of significant decisions. I came to appreciate, however uncomfortably, that our business benefited from a perspective and practice that was contrary to my own. 

That experience has helped me create space for those different from me. And I don’t mean just being tolerant of others who are different but learning to be actively curious about why others are different and how that difference might contribute to the common good. 

It didn’t take much for me to understand why my business partner did what he did and how that helped our business succeed. But at other times, that may not be so clear. That’s why curiosity is essential. It often takes time and considerable effort to understand and appreciate those different from us. And in the process of doing so, we cultivate humility. 

A complementary aspect of being curious about others is being honest about ourselves. As we discover what makes others different from us, and why that might be a good thing, we find aspects of ourselves that may be less than flattering. 

I discovered that my self-perceived “virtue” of consensus building sometimes hid an unhealthy aversion to dealing with thorny issues. Sometimes I was going along to get along. What I initially saw in my business partner as resistance to consensus building, I came to appreciate as a challenge for me to do the right thing. My virtue turned out not to be so virtuous after all. Or, to quote T. S. Eliot, I discovered:

Things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains. (Little Gidding)

  1. When there is disagreement, let each person define their views. 

It’s easy to assume that we already know someone else’s perspective going into a conversation. We just “know” what they think. Of course, not only is that presumptuous, but it often leads to arguing with someone other than the person in front of us. Paying careful attention to what someone believes is a lot harder. 

One practice that I’ve found helpful is an extension of the practice of active listening. In that discipline, we try to repeat to people what they’ve said to us. That’s relatively easy with simple things, like what someone had for dinner last night. But it’s more complex when dealing with people’s values and beliefs. It requires work to get into their heads to understand what they are saying. So, in addition to allowing people to define their views rather than projecting what we think they are, it’s helpful to try and restate in our own words what we understand of their convictions and ask, “Is this what you mean? Do I have this right?” 

Frankly, I find it much easier to engage in critique rather than in trying to understand what others believe. I have my arguments all lined up for an imagined interlocutor, often before I even enter the conversation. It’s hard work to understand another’s point of view when it is so different from mine, especially when it represents a deep conflict in values or belief systems. But that too is the price for learning humility. 

A related practice is to compare our best arguments with their best arguments, rather than our best with their worst. When we are in a leadership situation where there are different sides to a conflict, all sides usually have good and not-so-good arguments. Sometimes the disputes can be settled on their merits. But often, particularly in a polarized or distrustful context, we need to find some way to bridge the lack of trust. 

A helpful starting point is to focus on the strong points of each argument instead of on its weaknesses. Taking the point of view of others seriously means acknowledging the strength of their ideas, even when they counter our perceived interests. Humility means subordinating our interests long enough to hear what others are saying and in a way that we might not have considered before. 

  1. Build trust and agree when possible.

Forming and growing trust are at the heart of leadership. Without trust, authentic leadership is impossible. When there is disagreement, figuring out a way to create a safe space for difficult conversations is one of the tasks of wise leadership. Sometimes it can lead to surprising situations and results. 

Richard Mouw was the president of Fuller Seminary and is a good friend. He is an exceptionally articulate statesman and passionate advocate for historic Christianity who—to the surprise of many and the dismay of some—opened a serious dialogue with the Mormon church some years ago. 

As I heard Rich tell the story, he had developed a relationship with some senior leaders in the Mormon theological community at Brigham Young University (BYU). As part of building that relationship, they decided to host an event at BYU between Rich and some of his Ph.D. students, representing Fuller and their counterparts from Brigham Young. 

One day, they gathered for a chapel event. One of the New Testament professors from BYU preached a sermon out of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Rich commented afterward that he found the sermon surprisingly orthodox in content and one that any Christian pastor could have preached. One of his students reportedly turned to one of the Brigham Young students and said, “I didn’t know that Mormons believed this about the Bible.” And the BYU student responded, “I didn’t either!”

When we create a safe space and trusted relationships, everyone can sometimes be surprised by what we learn about others, not to mention ourselves! Of course, Rich would be the first to say that serious theological differences between orthodox Christian and Mormon beliefs remain. And yet, there are places, some of them surprising to both sides, where agreement is possible. But it took humility, along with the associated risks, to find them. 

  1. Own your own responsibility. 

Given humility’s focus on the other person, it may be surprising to have a practice that zeros in on us. Taking personal responsibility is work that cannot be delegated to others—it is ours alone to bear. 

When Rich was president of Fuller Seminary, Bill Robinson was president of Whitworth University. Bill became a good friend while we served together on Fuller Seminary’s De Pree Leadership Center Board. 

Bill tells the story of Whitworth wrestling with the question of whether the university would put filters on the Internet. Campus-wide conversations about the issue took place over much of the 1995/1996 academic year, culminating in a town hall meeting. At that time, a student asked whether they were now going to have a chance to vote on what the university’s policy should be. Because of how participative the conversations had been, Bill’s response caught the student by surprise. Bill said that while he wanted to get everyone’s input, he was responsible for doing what he believed was in the institution’s best interest. And that was a responsibility he carried as president and couldn’t delegate to a vote by the students. For better or for worse, Bill owned that responsibility.

Humility is not the abdication of personal responsibility. Communal participation in discernment doesn’t preclude decision-making responsibility from being vested in one person. We can’t use the former as a shield against making the hard decisions we alone must make. Humility doesn’t arrogantly take on too much responsibility, nor does it skirt that which is ours to carry. 

Earlier, I discussed the problematic season at my company precipitated by the recession of 2008. During that time, I convened our senior leaders to discuss how we might address the technology and business challenges we faced. We had a long conversation, with many different options and opinions presented, some with great passion. Somewhere along the line, I wondered whether I would be able to get the leadership team to unite behind a single course of action going forward. 

In the end, I thanked them for their input and said, “Now, here is what we are going to do . . .” A bit to my surprise, there was little resistance or second-guessing. Taking responsibility is essential, not least because it provides focus and clarity. 

Excerpted from The Wise Leader by Uli Chi ©2024 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.